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Brett Neely, MPR News 90.3 FM, Published December 04 2013

Farm bill talks still stalled as next week's deadline looms

WASHINGTON – With less than two weeks before federal lawmakers take a holiday break, prospects in Congress for a speedy passage of the long-delayed farm bill appear to be fading.

Lead House and Senate negotiators on the federal farm bill met Wednesday to try to find a path forward on the legislation. But the top Democrats and Republicans on the House and Senate agriculture committees emerged from their hour-long meeting without any concrete progress toward a deal.

The biggest obstacle is the food stamp program, which makes up about 70 percent of the farm bill’s overall spending of about $100 billion a year. Republicans in the House would cut far more than Democrats in the Senate.

That didn’t stop Democrats and Republicans on the two agriculture committees from staying on message as they walked out of the meeting.

“We’re doing great,” said U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, a Democrat who chairs the Senate agriculture panel. “We’ve made great progress, good steps.”

But none of the lawmakers who attended the meeting gave any details about the talks, except to say that they were wide-ranging.

When asked if the bill could be finished before the end of the year as the lawmakers had long hoped or whether yet another extension will be needed, Stabenow was cagey.

“We’re going to get this done as quickly as possible,” she said.

U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, the ranking member on the House Agriculture Committee, was unusually quiet when asked if he thought Congress would pass a farm bill after three years of fits and starts.

“I’m always optimistic,” said Peterson, who represents Minnesota’s 7th District, including Moorhead.

But if recent history is any indication, finding a solution won’t be easy.

The Senate passed a farm bill in 2012 only to see House Republicans choose not to bring up a bill.

This year, the typically bipartisan farm bill was defeated on the floor of the House after scores of Republicans voted against it because they wanted deeper food stamp cuts while Democrats opposed any cuts at all.

Later the House passed a bill that cuts the food stamp program by $40 billion over a decade, 10 times the cuts made in the Senate bill.

The entire process has been has been frustrating for U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, who represents Minnesota’s 1st District. Walz is on the 41-member negotiating committee that’s supposed to formally hash out the differences between the House and Senate bills – a group that has met just once.

“It challenges the most optimistic person,” Walz said.

On Tuesday, House Speaker John Boehner appeared to be preparing for the negotiating process to fail by preemptively blaming Senate Democrats for a possible breakdown.

Senate Democrats and President Barack Obama have vowed not to accept the House food stamp cuts.

“We can’t get Senate Democrats to the point of saying yes,” Boehner said.

The deep differences between Republicans and Democrats on food stamps could mean any negotiated deal might still fail because there may not be enough votes on the House floor, veteran Congressional scholar Norm Ornstein said.

On top of the partisan divisions, the various farm groups that have often maintained a unified front during past farm bills are feuding over the size and scope of federal safety net programs for crops such as corn, soybeans and cotton, a development Ornstein suggested is ominous.

“All of this suggests a sort of breakdown in relationships that doesn’t work for anybody,” he said.

Ornstein, a political scientist and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said the tight federal budget has made it difficult to spread money around in a way that satisfies all groups. He said Congress is unlikely to become less polarized anytime soon.

“There’s a recognition among a lot of these groups that this isn’t going to be the last time that they have to go through this insanity,” Ornstein said. “And so you want to get what you can now at whatever cost to your former allies because you have no idea how this is going to play out in a couple of years.”

One possibility is a short-term legislative fix on one part of the expiring farm bill to prevent milk prices from rising. That would give lawmakers breathing room to finish the farm bill in 2014.

The House is scheduled to finish its business for the year by Dec. 13, and the Senate is scheduled to leave Washington a week later.